A Series of Uncomfortable Conversations: Breaking the Myth of Meritocracy

At a December discussion at WHYY entitled “Breaking the Myth of Meritocracy,” panel speaker Andre Perry quipped that he has a solution for closing the test score gap between black and white kids in America, “Stop teaching white kids.”

It was an appropriate sentiment for the opening discussion panel (the first of four), called, “A Series of Uncomfortable Conversations.” It happened at the height of the first snowstorm of the season, but the December 9 event was well-attended. A panel of four experts (from the artistic, academic, political, and activist realms) was moderated by Mike O’Bryan, who is an Urban Innovation Fellow at Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, as well as the director of youth and young adult programs at the Village of Arts and Humanities.

The panel was hosted by WHYY, Little Giant Creative’s A Dream Deferred project, and Next City’s Philadelphia in Flux project (the series is funded by the Knight and William Penn Foundations).

The conversation set out to explore, how historic and contemporary injustices play out in the nation’s poorest large city, which is also one of the most segregated, with high poverty rates concentrated in majority non-white areas.

The event launched with a brief history of the 20th-century nationwide practice of redlining (Next City journalist Jake Blumgart lays out the legacy of redlining in Philly here). Majority-white neighborhoods were designated a good investment; neighborhoods of black and brown people, or immigrants, were outlined as undesirable and too risky to finance.

Where does the fall out of redlining and similar policies leave us today?

“It has to be hard for white people to understand that they didn’t get there on their own merit,” noted Perry, who is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. White men especially, Perry said, find this difficult to stomach. Centuries of policies that bolstered white citizens have spawned a poisonous collective consciousness of white people as the most valuable people. He noted that this is, “a deep psychosocial ill…and it’s killing black and brown people.”

Panelist Camille Z. Charles, a University of Pennsylvania professor of social sciences and Africana studies, author of the book, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Race, Class and Residence,” offered a related take. “Nobody wants to live around poor people,” Charles said. And thanks to institutionalized policies of oppression, we have a shorthand that says black and brown people are poor. If white people could get an accurate education in American history, she insisted, we wouldn’t have to be talking about the myth of white people out-meriting everyone else.

On issues of gentrification, Perry said it’s not bad in itself—what’s bad is when people of color are excluded from local economic growth. Charles touched on the inherent struggle of who holds the reins in a changing neighborhood: is it the longtime residents, or the newly arrived people with the purchasing power?

And even when individual people of color have day-to-day earnings comparable to white neighbors, “We don’t have comparable wealth,” Charles said. This stretches back over centuries of oppression and outright theft that awarded most of society’s inherited wealth to white people.

“There’s not a pipeline issue. There’s an investment issue,” Perry said of the habit of “inflating white mediocrity” while “deflating black talent.”

Panelist Pili X said the gap is an urgent problem needing non-traditional on-the-ground community intervention. An artist, activist, and radical urban planner, X is the director of community partnerships at the North Philly Peace Park, which began by turning one trash-filled vacant lot into a vegetable garden, and has since become a neighborhood-managed ecology campus stretching for an entire block.

“We didn’t have time for paperwork,” he said of circumventing the city to turn the dangerous, dirty, long-abandoned land into a hub for fresh food and community-building, with plans for a school on the horizon.   

“We have to figure out how to become allies to each other,” said 7th District Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez. She called herself, a cheerleader who’s gonna keep it real about the good that’s happening, while continuing to highlight the work needed. “This city is ours.”

The Q&A drew a comment from Philly journalist Ernest Owens, “Who is it uncomfortable for?” he asked, on whether the panel itself was framed in terms of how the topic feels for white people, who must confront their own privilege. “White people have to move the hell out of the way,” he added. 

Charles emphasized that while everyone with white skin has some degree of privilege, there is a growing economic segment of white people who are feeling pressures similar to those non-white people have generally always faced in America.

Also, she disagreed that the conversation is uncomfortable only for white people. “It’s exhausting,” she said of being the person in the chair educating everyone else, especially on a snowy weekend when she would rather be relaxing at home. She wishes this conversation wasn’t necessary at all, but as long as it is, she’ll continue the work.

Look out for more Uncomfortable Conversations panels in 2018.